I must admit, I was somewhat speechless when last month’s issue of the Harvard Business Review landed on my desk. Actually it landed on my colleague Kate’s desk, and I stole it before she even had the plastic wrapper removed. The theme for the issue, announced in large font on the cover, was “Sustainability and Innovation: How Green Will Save Us.”
About 15 years ago, I had the (mostly) enjoyable experience of attending Harvard Business School. I had already started my career in environmental work and thought business school would be a good way to build the skills I would need to bridge the gap between business and environmental interests. In typical Harvard Business School style, my section-mates dubbed me the “token environmentalist.”
At the time, the idea that companies could create competitive advantage through green initiatives was mostly scoffed at by my fellow students and professors. One exception were my operations management professors who, being engineers, comprehended that pollution was waste and understood that companies could capitalize on sustainability to provide benefits throughout an organization.
Well, as it turns out, the skeptics may have been right in that business models wouldn’t embrace sustainability until the “broader context” had matured. It seems that the latest edition of the HBR has officially declared that the context has matured; the challenges of climate change, energy independence and sustainability have now taken hold in the public, with government and business. Sustainability is now driving business decisions from the boardroom down to front-line employees.
Being a communications professional, one of my jobs is to spot trends and make sure our clients are part of them. It was with much excitement, and a fair amount of my own pushing, that I watched the trend in sustainability and clean tech burst into the mainstream over the last three years. However, our trend-watching acumen also makes us more aware of the saturation point. In short, when does something go from hot to “so five minutes ago?”
What unnerved me most about the HBR cover was the notion that we might have finally crossed that line. However, after reading several of the articles my stress began to be replaced by a new optimism. My brighter outlook was created by the thought that this time the sustainability movement might be more than a trend because the economics of scarcity are now forcing the issue in a way that can no longer be denied. I love it when markets drive solutions to social problems.
Will we look back in a few years and shake our heads about all the green hype? Probably. However, I think we will also see sustainability taken as a given when it comes to creating competitive advantages. That’s good news for us and the planet upon which we live.